Right now there are 56 liquor enforcement officers on the job in Washington, policing the state’s bars and liquor stores and keeping an eye out for illegal liquor sales and sales to minors.
But their job is about to get harder and more complex. Under I-502, the legal Marijuana Initiative approved last fall, the agency is called on to set up the web of rules and regulations covering marijuana sales and to enforce those rules.
Officer Josh Bolender, lobbying in Olympia on behalf of his union (Washington Federation of State Employees), says pot changes the game.
“Cannabis is a whole new thing for us. It is uncharted territory,” he said.
Liquor enforcement officers like Bolender wear a uniform, carry a badge and a gun, but don’t have the same law enforcement powers as other police officers. They are called “Limited Authority” peace officers.
With the number of stores selling liquor tripling in the last year and a half with the privatization of booze and with legal marijuana just around the corner, Bolender and fellow enforcement officers say they’ll be running into some dangerous criminal situations they aren’t authorized to deal with.
“With the unlicensed sale of cannabis there is often a nexus with other drugs, illegal drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin,” said Bolender.
He and his union are asking the legislator to expand their authority, and provide full law enforcement training for any new hires to the agency. At least 16 more enforcement officers are expected to be hired in conjunction with the implementation of I-502.
House Bill 1876, under consideration now in Olympia, would give them the tools they say they need to operate in an entirely new environment.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs normally opposes the expansion of police power beyond the “Limited Authority” designation. In this case, the WASPC’s Executive Director Mitch Barker tells me they would certainly be willing to “revisit the issue” and try to figure out ways to help Liquor Enforcement Officers do their job.